Nov 182010

Forensic linguistics is a sexy field. If you’re trying to work out who sent a text message or ransom note, or made an obscene phone call or bomb threat, or if there’s doubt about whether the deceased really wrote that suicide note, these folks will look at the language and help you figure it out.

Here’s a 10 minute extract from a lecture by one of the world’s top forensic linguists, Professor Malcolm Coulthard.

(If you get hooked, a full version of the lecture -it lasts an hour- can be seen here at Aston University’s website)

There’s a popular detective show called ‘Bones’ on US TV about a forensic anthropologist who looks at human remains to work out whodunit. And in another called ‘Lie to Me’, the hero uses facial recognition to figure it out. Surely linguistics is a much more interesting and credible science?

Somewhere waiting to happen, there’s a hit TV series with a linguistic detective as our hero/heroine. They would need to be an engaging character though, and they’d probably need to interestingly flawed in some way. But how might a linguist be flawed? Any thoughts on what they could be like? Does anyone fancy writing it?

 Posted by at 5:41 am

  10 Responses to “Linguistic detectives”

  1. How’s this for a scenario?

    A famous coursebook writer, Valerie, is kidnapped by some radical dogme extremists.
    Their objectives: to show her and the ELT community at large the error of their ways.
    Their demands: worldwide conversion to dogme.

    Imprisoned in a dark, airless classroom, forced to listen to a compilation of ‘quiz show scenario’ listenings on a loop in an attempt to break her spirit, Valerie is subjected to daily ‘input sessions’ in the doctrine of dogme,
    In a cruel twist, she is forced, at mousepoint, to document and analyse the language that emerges from her ‘interactions’ with her masked tormentors on her well-known blog.

    Her ‘merican husband, Jay, begins to notice something odd in the daily reports, Val’s excessive use of ‘mericanisms without irony. Surely this must be a hidden message, perhaps a clue to her whereabouts.

    Unable to convince the ELT authorities and sceptical publishers, he turns to the one man who can help him: the linguistic detective. But can he reach her in time? Will he get there before the DOGline?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  2. They would have to have a stammer.

  3. Ha! Crikey Jessica! I’d hire you for a writing team in a jiffy. I shall be looking over my shoulder when I go out at night now. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or horrified but thank you!

    Chris. Oh my, that’s brilliant! When the pressure is on, they stammer – love it!

    So are they a cop or a private detective, or might they have a job that involves a lot of unavoidable public speaking?

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, BELTfree. BELTfree said: via @vickihollett Linguistic detectives […]

  5. I love this TV series idea. If the writeup here doesn’t sound like the making of at least one great season, I don’t know what does. And you can include all kinds of technology: facebook, twitter, SMS messages, quirks about how people write on the iPad, etc.

    About the main character, obviously Dr. Olsson and Dr. Coulthard do not fit the bill. Not pretty enough for TV. But I like the older Englishman type for the role. Maybe he tosses out references to classic literature and history which his colleagues don’t understand: an old school professor who knows a bit about everything, hearkening back to Sherlock Holmes. He needs a young assistant, someone very tech savvy, to play Watson.

    The professor has dyslexia or some other, rarer reading disorder that makes him exceptionally skilled at his job. He can see the shapes and patterns in language. He could have a quirky past time that uses this skill as well, like for example writing romance novels under a pseudonym. He just needs to read 10 books of a certain style and he can reproduce original works in the exact same style. Master of pastiche. He could even have a computer program that builds the plot lines for him.

    But he also has a darker hobby: forging documents. He has some political affiliation and he secretly assists his movement by creating perfect forgeries. His knowledge of forensic linguistics makes him an excellent forger, and he justifies this activity because he believes it to be for the greater good (and in fact it may be). But some of his forgeries are catching up with him…

    The young assistant could also play a major role. What about a (beautiful) woman from India who left India to study at MIT and then never went back? Her family wants her to return for an arranged marriage and this is a continual struggle for her personally. You could introduce another romance for her at some point, someone completely unacceptable to her family (a Chinese-American?). This plot line gives you a chance to have a bit of exploration of non-American cultural issues, issues facing immigrants, etc.

  6. Oh wow, Kate. I’m hooked, I can’t stop turning the pages. This is it!!! You need to give up your day job and head out to Hollywood.

  7. The thought of having to live in L.A. makes me shiver. But oddly I do have a Hollywood connection: my cousin was one of the stars of that high schooler TV show, The O.C., and is on some cop show now (Southlands I think it’s called?) I’ll talk to him about the linguistic detective series over Christmas and see if he thinks it has any wings.

  8. What fun you’re all getting up to. I’m not usually one for crime shows but Jessica’s and Kate’s are g-g-great.

  9. […] Linguistic detectives | Learning to speak 'merican […]

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